The Indigenous World 2014: Editorial

The path towards the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

It was a defining moment when, in the long afternoon spent waiting for the final draft outcome document to be presented, Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Cree Nation and Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples took the floor in Alta and gave words of hope and inspiration to the over 600 delegates and observers gathered at the Indigenous Global Preparatory Conference. 

The indigenous delegates were clearly worn out by days without end of heated discussions and tough negotiations, and the atmosphere in the stadium was tense with anxiety that time would run out without achieving the huge task of reaching a global consensus on indigenous peoples’ priorities and recommendations for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.1

Standing at the podium in Alta, northern Norway, homeland of the Saami people, Chief Littlechild paid tribute to the elders who had led the way for international recognition of indigenous peoples and for indigenous peoples to have a voice in the UN: “Sometimes we struggle. Yes. Sometimes we face difficult challenges. But we should not forget the progress we have made,” he said and re-called the collective vision formulated by the elders in 1977 when the Saami hosted the 2nd General Assembly of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in Kiruna, Swedish Sápmi: “We want recognition. We want respect. And we want justice and peaceful co-existence.”

Since the Kiruna meeting, the indigenous movement has succeeded in getting ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) adopted, and in establishing three institutional UN mandates on indigenous peoples rights, i.e. the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Emphasising that, despite international recognition, not all indigenous peoples yet enjoy recognition, respect, justice and peaceful co-existence, he concluded:

So you see, we have a lot of work to do and a long way to go. But I think, if we continue to build on the strength of our people, if we pursue the action plan and strategy that you are working on today, we will get there soon. (…)

From Kiruna to Alta we now have a hopeful path to the future. One world where we have full recognition as indigenous peoples: reconciliation for the past harm that has been done to our peoples: …respectful relations based on partnership: … And the full implementation of the UN Declaration, so that we can all live that dream we all have of a full right to self-determination. (….)

For yes, there will be better times. And yes, there will be a better world for all.

Chief Littlechild’s speech was received with a standing ovation and, later that same evening, on 12 June 2013, the Alta Outcome Document was unanimously adopted by the seven geo-regional indigenous caucuses as well as by the indigenous women’s caucus and the indigenous youth caucus.

The Alta Conference was the culmination of a comprehensive global preparatory process in which indigenous peoples came together to formulate their aspirations for the World Conference from their respective regional, age or gender-based perspectives. The Alta Outcome Document hence represents an enormous collective effort on the part of the global indigenous movements and effectively voices the priorities of the world’s 5,000 distinct indigenous peoples – more than 370 million people.

The document reaffirms that the inherent and inalienable right of self-determination is pre-eminent, and a prerequisite for the realization of all rights enshrined in the UNDRIP, and that the UNDRIP must be regarded as the normative framework and basis for the Outcome Document of the World Conference and its full realization.

The recommendations contained in the Alta document provide an important overview of the issues that are of central concern to indigenous peoples. While reflecting much of the language of the UNDRIP, the document also adds to the understanding of indigenous peoples’ priorities both in terms of the content of their rights and in terms of how those rights might be protected, and is, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Prof. James Anaya, an important normative instrument and plan of action in its own right.

More concretely, it provides multiple recommendations within four overarching themes that encapsulate the issues of greatest importance to indigenous peoples. Not surprisingly, these four themes are also well reflected in the 73 articles included in this edition of The Indigenous World

Indigenous Peoples’ lands, territories, resources, oceans and waters

The first theme of the Alta Outcome Document covers indigenous peoples’ lands, territories, resources, oceans and waters and highlights the crucial need for states to recognise indigenous peoples’ inalienable rights to land as a prerequisite for securing their ability to practice self-determination. The backdrop to this theme is the enormous pressure indigenous peoples are facing in upholding their lands, their livelihoods and, ultimately, some of the world’s most fragile and biodiversity-rich ecosystems against the ever-expanding development frontier.

While this phenomenon is certainly not new, there has been an increase in the forced displacement being suffered by indigenous communities globally. A sharp acceleration in the acquisition of lands, notably by foreign investors in search of arable land and natural resources, has led in many cases to what has been labelled “land grabbing”.

In Tanzania, for example, several indigenous communities were evicted in 2013 in the name of nature and wildlife conservation for tourism. A huge military operation established to crack down on poachers was found to be targeting pastoralist communities instead, leaving a trail of burned houses, dead livestock and many inhabitants unlawfully arrested, tortured and killed. In Ethiopia, thousands of indigenous people have been evicted to make room for sugarcane plantations and an estimated 500,000 will lose their lands when the proposed Gibe III Dam becomes a reality. In Laos and Cambodia, the dispossession of indigenous communities through the granting of land concessions to agro-industrial enterprises and mining companies has accelerated while, in Brazil, renewable energy projects in the form of hydroelectric dams are threatening more than 90,000 ha of indigenous peoples’ land.

One underlying cause of land grabbing is the lack of clarity of tenure rights. It is therefore good news that Kenya has, in recent years, adopted a new Constitution and a National Land Policy and established a National Land Commission. If the Constitution and the Land Policy are implemented and if the Commission is able to work according to its mandate, this will provide a good framework for solving indigenous peoples’ land claims and securing their land rights. The lack of implementation of the ACHPR’s Endorois ruling, which in 2009 ordered the Kenyan government to restore the Endorois’ right to their ancestral land in the Lake Bogoria area, demonstrates, however, that even with a new and progressive constitution and a well-functioning regional human rights system, indigenous peoples still face a formidable task when seeking justice. It is hoped that the National Land Commission will take up this matter with the relevant branch of government as part of the process of seeking redress for historical injustices against indigenous peoples.

Another improvement in clarifying tenure rights was seen in Indonesia when, in May, the Constitutional Court overruled the 1999 Forestry Law and concluded that ‘Customary Forest’ is not state forest but forest within the traditional territory of indigenous communities. While official implementation is still wanting and land grabbing ongoing, indigenous communities in Indonesia have begun their own process of demarcating and rehabilitating customary forest. They have also undertaken to map approximately six million hectares of indigenous territories in 2013 and to launch a campaign to claim formal recognition.

This and many other examples found in this book demonstrate the strength of indigenous peoples in pursuing strategies for the protection and defence of their lands, livelihoods and worldviews through everyday acts of resistance.

UN system action for the implementation of the rights of indigenous Peoples

The second theme of the Alta document reflects indigenous peoples’ aspiration to improve their possibility of full and effective participation in the UN system itself and to participate in and have their rights respected in the more concrete manifestations of the work of UN agencies on all levels.

Although indigenous peoples have made great progress since they gained access to the UN, their right to fully participate as rights holders in UN decision-making processes that directly affect them through their own representative organisations and institutions (Art 18 of the UNDRIP) continues to be strongly contested by some member states. The current hesitancy in recognising indigenous peoples’ full, effective, direct and equal participation in the World Conference process is a clear reflection of this. Disturbingly, only five months before the conference, it is still uncertain whether or not the UN will take the necessary steps to ensure indigenous peoples’ full and effective participation in a conference that is aimed at the realization of their rights. If the UN fails to do so, most of the world’s indigenous peoples will disengage from the process and the UN will prove incapable of living up to its own obligations to promote, respect and implement the rights of indigenous peoples.

Implementation of the rights of indigenous Peoples

A thread running through the recommendations under the third theme of the Alta document is a renegotiation of the relationship of peaceful co-existence between states and indigenous peoples on the basis of the UNDRIP and the strengthening of indigenous peoples’ capacity to practice self-determination. Apart from counterbalancing the inequalities experienced by indigenous peoples, the recommendations are aimed at a complete decolonization of indigenous peoples’ health, education, governance and legal systems, as well as reconciliation and redress for past harms. This includes the restoration of lands, sacred sites and ancestral remains.

2013 saw some interesting developments with regard to how indigenous peoples are seeking to renegotiate their relationship with states. In Tanzania, indigenous peoples have organised to influence the constitution, which is currently undergoing a review process. For the first time in Tanzania, a constitutional review aims to include all sectors of society. The first draft mentions representation, education and land rights for minorities. With the appointment of six of its members to the Constituent Assembly, the pastoralist and hunter-gatherer initiative Katiba hopes for a strengthening and clarification of these issues, which are essential if a more just society is to be built.

In Nepal, on the other hand, the constitutional review is flawed by the continuous refusal to respect indigenous peoples’ right to be represented through their own institutions in the Constituent Assembly, which is today based on a political party system privileging the elite. Elections for the second Constituent Assembly in November saw a decrease in the number of indigenous Constituent Assembly members, making it even more difficult for indigenous peoples to secure an identity-based federalism  that  would  recognise and  respect  diversity  in a  country where at least 36% of the population is indigenous.2

In Colombia, in the context of ongoing peace negotiations and the state’s aggressive promotion of megaprojects, indigenous peoples last year mobilized to clarify, consolidate and improve their land rights. Indigenous peoples have been heavily affected by the civil war - often caught in the crossfire between the armed groups - and they thus do not feel represented by either of the parties to the peace talks, neither of whom they trust will promote their claim for restoration of lost land and territorial governance.

On the path to peaceful and respectful co-existence between states and indigenous peoples, states need to recognise and adhere to the UNDRIP and, as a first step, ensure that indigenous peoples are able to participate in peace negotiations, reconciliation processes and renegotiations of the social contract through their own representative institutions.

For justice to be fulfilled, however, fundamental change is needed. 2013 saw a clear example of how a change in colonial power structures may still be a long way off: in Guatemala, former president Ríos Montt was prosecuted and convicted for the genocide of the Maya Ixil and crimes against humanity during his presidency but, shamefully, the case was subsequently overturned by the Constitutional Court. The trial opened the eyes of Guatemalan society to the genocide committed against indigenous peoples during the civil war, and it demonstrated that even the most powerful can be brought before the courts but, in the end, it still demonstrated that impunity continues to reign.

Indigenous Peoples’ priorities for development with free, prior and informed consent

The last theme of the Alta Outcome Document deals with self-determined development as an alternative to externally-imposed approaches to development. Indigenous peoples want development on their own terms, and they demand to be consulted in ways that respect the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).

In 2013, in its report to the UN General Assembly, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights identified ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the UNDRIP as the authoritative sources of indigenous peoples’ rights by which states and business enterprises must abide, including the right to FPIC,3 when planning projects that will affect indigenous peoples. The UNDRIP contains the clearest language on FPIC, while ILO C169 sets the highest legally binding standards for participation in, and prior consultations of, indigenous peoples on issues that affect them.

This volume, however, gives example upon example of slow, flawed or completely lacking implementation of FPIC processes by both states and companies. In 2013, social protests were staged in Namibia, Malaysia, Nepal, West Papua, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, Canada and many more countries against proposed megaprojects affecting indigenous peoples’ lands and territories. In none of these instances have indigenous peoples been able to exercise their right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

In 2014, the ILO celebrates the 25th anniversary of Convention 169. After 25 years, it has been ratified by 22 countries (15 in Latin America), many of which have recently made efforts to produce indigenous consultation mechanisms. Judging from the Latin American contributions to this volume, these efforts do not live up to international standards and have not yet been crowned with great success. In Chile, for example, a new regulation on consultation approved in 2013 exempts public companies, the military and municipalities from the obligation to consult and considers the duty to consult fulfilled if attempts at consultation have been made - even if no agreement has been reached. In Peru, the regulations governing the law on prior consultation lack clarification as to when consent is compulsory and place the responsibility to conduct consultation with the very public sector that is promoting the measures requiring consultation. The duty to consult is, moreover, only applied to certain parts of the indigenous population, following a set of arbitrary criteria for recognition of indigenous identity.

As stressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples during his visit to Peru in December 2013, a necessary condition for implementing consultation is the creation of an “atmosphere of mutual trust”.

While indigenous peoples’ trust in states and companies is being affected by the devastating consequences of development projects on their territories and by the unlawful repression of their legitimate social protests, most states and companies continue to disregard indigenous peoples’ fundamental rights and show distrust of indigenous peoples’ own institutions and models for development and thus primarily see them as “obstacles” to development.

Indigenous peoples are not against development or environmental protection but indigenous organisations are promoting alternative models that encompass rights, culture and spiritual values and are seeking sustainable ways of life built on traditional knowledge. Indeed, such models can inform ecosystem monitoring and growth in biodiversity, resilience, cultural diversity, food security and equality as demonstrated in many of the articles in this book (e.g. CBD, UNFCCC, IFAD, Post 2015).

To quote from this year’s Canada article: “Indigenous peoples’ rights are not a barrier to economic development. The rights of Indigenous peoples as protected in domestic and international law provide a principled, unbiased framework to ensure that the development that does take place will benefit Indigenous peoples rather than compounding the injustices they have experienced.”

Throughout the year, from the discussions on sustainable development goals in New York to the indigenous women’s conference in Lima to the climate talks in Warsaw, indigenous peoples have reiterated that they are not the problem but rather a part of the solution to the environmental and climate change crisis facing us all. Acknowledging indigenous peoples’ self-determined development models and their right to development on their own terms is an important step towards recognition, respect, justice and peaceful co-existence – the vision formulated by indigenous peoples in Kiruna in 1977 and again in Alta in 2013.


Cæcilie Mikkelsen

Lola García-Alix


Copenhagen, April 2014


Notes and references

1The official title of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, to be held on 23-24 September 2014 in the UN Headquarters in New York, is a “high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly to be known as The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples”. See more about the World Conference and about indigenous peoples’ preparatory process in the article included in this volume.

2According to indigenous organisations, indigenous peoples comprise more than 50% of the population of For further information, see the Nepal article in this volume.

3The report can be downloaded at:


This article is part of the 28th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2014 in full here

Tags: Global governance, IWGIA Report



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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